Friday, August 29, 2008

My Favorite Songs - #s 1-10

I was going to milk this, but I figured what better way to end the summer than by finishing this thing off. So - my ten favorite songs:

10. "One" - U2
When all is said and done, 25 or 50 , or maybe even a 100 years from now, I believe this will be the song that U2 is remembered for. Its prominence has come on slowly - it was not the first single from Acthung Baby and it was never a huge hit. But as the years have gone by, it's become more and more loved, and covered, and esteemed. It's a kind of remarkably simple song, at least as the chord structure goes - I can even kind of play the main chord progression on guitar (and I don't play guitar). But there's something in the way that progression moves and shifts, something in the way that the Edge plays it, that creates an indelible mood. It also helps that the lyric straddles a vanishingly thin line between too-specific and too-simple, letting multiple meanings coexist. I mean, this is a song that has been used as a wedding song and a funeral song.

9. "Jackie Brown" - John Mellencamp
This is not a big Mellencamp hit. But it may be his best story song. A simple yet powerful elegy for the poor in this country that uses one (presumably fictional) family to tell its story. The almost-buoyant guitar line is a wonderful counterpoint to the lyric, and the mournful instrumental solo in the middle does a fine job of keeping the sadness front and center. Hugely effecting for me, and always has been.

8. "Come Down in Time" - Sting
A cover from the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tribute album. I've never heard the original. But Sting's slow-jazz version, with just piano and bass, is as beautiful a thing as I've ever heard. I did a play in college once where I played a character who was sad and depressed and down, and I used this song to get into the right mindset every night. Gorgeously melancholy.

7. "God Only Knows" - Beach Boys
A thing of pure beauty, and already the song that I think the Beach Boys are being most-remembered for. What a pristine arrangement. Also - best use of sleigh bells in any song ever, right? I love the low piano figure that bridges the first two verses - so theatrical and music hall-y. And that schizo, staccato instrumental bridge! It really shouldn't work at all, and yet - it does!

6. "Please" - U2
In a pretty bad ABC special promoting the album in 1997, narrator Dennis Hopper has a line about how in 1997 U2 was still writing songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," only now they were called "Please." True, actually. This may be U2's most musically sophisticated song - certainly Larry Mullen Jr. has never had a drum part as jazzy and slinky as this one. Pop is a pretty dark album, and this song is a big part of why. The music has a kind of haunted paranoia to it that is just delicious, and I love how Bono's impassioned delivery kicks up a notch at the end.

5. "When the Angels Fall" - Sting
A song you probably don't know. This is the song that ends Sting's best album, The Soul Cages. As I said when writing about "Island of Souls," this album could really form the basis of a fine musical. This is the finale. I can muddle my way through this on piano, and the chords and changes are just wonderful, full of unexpected tensions and releases. I love how damn slow he takes this song, how deliberately paced it is. It's also got a great subject and lyric - it's about letting go of your faith, which is a subject not many pop songwriters get around to.

4. "Check It Out" - John Mellencamp
I'm going to cheat an steal from myself. Here's what I wrote on this previously:

Back when I first started to get into music, when my music collection was still small but had started to gain some mass, I made a list of my 100 favorite songs (blogging impulses were clearly there long before there was blogging). And as time went on, I would periodically revisit the list, adding in new songs I had discovered and shuffling others as my tastes evolved. And yet every time I made my list, one song always took the top spot. Now, if I were to compile such a list today (and I just might!), I'm not sure that John Mellencamp's "Check It Out" would still come out on top. But it just might.

The Lonesome Jubilee remains, 20 years after its release, Mellencamp's best album. It's a distinctive, unified album that features a singular combination of county and rock elements that he's never since really combined in the same way. And "Check It Out," which was the second single released, I believe, is easily the album's highlight. The song starts with a crack of the snare a split second before the band comes in. We hear strummed guitar, bass, and drums, the meat and potatoes of rock music, but the primary element is not the electric guitar (which if it's present at all is doing rhythm work along with the acoustic) but an electric fiddle playing a high melody. It's this melody that forms the core of the song, and it's a gorgeous one - a sad, yet hopeful lyrical piece of music that speaks volumes in its quiet simplicity.

When Mellencamp comes in, after the fiddle has finished a complete rendition of this primary theme, it's over confident guitars and drums kicking out a steady beat:

A million young poets
Screaming out their words
To a world full of people
Just living to be heard
By future generations
Riding on the highways that we built
I hope they have a better understanding

This isn’t a verse, or early showing of the chorus, but rather a refrain that will reappear at the end of the song. The song, in fact, features no standard verse/chorus form – its structure is instead ABBA, with those central B sections comprising repetitions of the band-shouted phrase “Check it out!” with Mellencamp-sung pithy pictures in between.

The content here is familiar ground for Mellencamp – the changing of the guard that happens as one generation ages and another matures. My high school yearbook quote comes from Mellencamp, from the liner notes to Scarecrow actually, and it neatly encapsulates this recurring theme of his: “There is nothing sadder or more glorious than generations changing hands.” “Check It Out” is about this theme. That “I hope they have a better understanding” gets called back at the end of the song when Mellencamp repeats it five times, alternating the “hope” with “maybe.” The message is clear—while we all may like to believe that our children will learn from our mistakes and improve their lot and the world’s lot, that’s hardly a guarantee. You can hope for it, or look to its possible fruition, but you can’t bet on it.

The “verses,” for lack of a better word, paint a typical Mellencamp picture of lower-middle class life in the Midwest.

Go to work on Monday
Got yourself a family
All the utility bills have been paid
Can’t tell your best buddy that you love him

The music here is simple but effective, very American rock-based, with open chords and contented strumming. But after these lines the fiddle comes back and the chords darken, as Mellencamp questions the happiness of his typical family:

But where does our time go
Got a brand-new house in escrow
Sleeping with your back to your loved one
This is all that we’ve learned about happiness

Here that plaintive, searching fiddle theme repeats before we get to the second “verse” with middle-aged life being questioned. At the end of this verse comes one of my favorite Mellencamp lines: “Soaring with the eagles all week long/And this all that we’ve learned about living.” Here the strumming dies down and the guitar instead picks out an introductory bit of business that leads up to the fiddle reaching up to a high note, not once, not twice, but three times, each time it’s ascent halted by a gunshot drum blast. This leads into what in reality is a pretty conventional guitar solo that restates the main melody, but that in practice is actually very effective, this being the first time in the song we’ve really noticed any electric guitar. It’s also important to note that the tone of that solo is almost resigned, not triumphant at all.

After the break, we get that repetition of the A section again, with its final five-time repeat of the “understanding line.” And the tension Mellencamp achieves here, with each unresolved (lyrically and musically) “hope (or “maybe”) they’ll have a better understanding,” is quite effective. You can hear the weariness and the wariness in his voice as he keeps repeating the question, until he can’t take it anymore and the core fiddle melody returns to close out the song. That the question is never resolved is important, I think, and central to the song. After all, how well or not future generations fare is not something we really ever get to see for certain.

I still do love this song greatly, and while it’s “all-time top” spot would probably go to “Where the Streets Have No Name” these days, it’s still way, way up there.

I was right - it's not #1. But it's up there.

3. "Walk On" - U2
There's something about the piano that starts it and the triumphant and sad leaping guitar line that demand that the song be played at maximum volume for me. A great, impassioned vocal from Bono and some very simple but very inspiring lyrics about triumphing in the face of tyranny. I do find it amusing, though, that perhaps the song's mostly critical lyric gets obscured by sloppy scansion. At the end of the song, Bono sings, to a building, driving beat "All that you fashion, all that you make, all that you build, all that you break, all that you measure, all that you feel, all that you can leave behind." That "can" is the key to the lyric, contrasting the album's title and emphasizing the immateriality of our material lives. And yet the way it scans with the music, with the emphasis on the "can," it reads aurally as "can't." Nonetheless, this is a stellar, inspirational, emotional rock song. That ending guitar part is classic, getting across a lot in a very simple way. U2 does inspirational rock better than anyone, I think, and this song shows why.

2. "Sugar Baby" - Bob Dylan
Dylan stares mortality in the face and converses with it. The song alternates between a verse and chorus that really don't sound like verses and choruses. The recurring "Sugar baby get on down the road/You ain't got no brains now how/You went years without me/You might as well keep going now" is just haunting in the bitterly resigned and tired way Dylan spits it out. This is probably my favorite vocal performance of Dylan's - I love the weariness and age in the voice, the way he trails off at the end of phrases, and the way he's constructed the song around these big mid-phrase pauses - he sometimes sounds like a forgetful old man trying to remember a word - "I got my back - PAUSE - to the sun 'cause - PAUSE - the light is too intense." And what a devastating phrase that is. Really, I don't know that anyone has written about death as well as Dylan. Just listen to that last verse:

Your charms have broken many a heart
And mine is surely one
You got a way of tearing a world apart, love
See what you done
Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born
Look up, look up - seek your Maker
'Fore Gabriel blows his horn

1. "Where the Streets Have No Name" - U2
This is it. The one. My favorite rock song, by anyone. I love every inch of it, from the marvelously solemn and hushed series of keyboard chords that ushers the song in; to the faint ringing guitar figure that drifts in slowly, gaining strength throughout the intro; to the way the drums kick in with power and an urgent drive partway through; to the impassioned and open-throated pure singing Bono indulges in throughout, to the perfect, symmetrical ending. And live, as anyone who has attended a U2 show could tell you, the song takes on added power and urgency--see the Rattle and Hum film for a stellar example.

Until Whenever


bill said...

Yea! Great work. This has been very entertaining.

Roger Owen Green said...

well, I had to milk mine. I TOLD you there'd be crossover, your #7 and my #1. BTW, I prefer the Rattle and Hum version of your #1 to the original.